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What to Do When Your Star Performer Stops Performing

Star performers can make an incredible contribution to an organisation, with the top 10% of performers typically responsible for 30% of the total production output in their industries¹. So, what do you do when your star performer stops performing?

Star performers

Defining a Star Performer

Those of you who caught my article on retaining top talent will know that star performers are in a league of their own. They make up 10-15% of the workforce, can be found in every industry¹, and consistently deliver at the top of their game, often exceeding the productivity of their colleagues by as much as 400%².

They are self-motivated, show a stronger tendency towards self-learning and development than other groups² and are more likely to stay in a role long-term if there is the potential to learn new skills². As a result, they are receptive to feedback and, while they value recognition, are keen to focus on areas where they can improve. You’re unlikely to see a star performer repeat the same mistake twice since they generally listen to assessments and successfully apply feedback².

Contrary to popular belief, high productivity is not the sole definition of a star performer. Unlike workaholics (another group that can deliver high outputs), star performers know their value and don’t need external validation³. They also have a high emotional intelligence with an increased tolerance for stress, and typically display traits including empathy, assertiveness, and optimism⁴. They prioritise their workloads, are highly efficient, and are less likely to suffer burnout as a result³.

The Difference Between Star Performers and High Potentials

Don’t confuse your star performers with your high potentials. Star performers can be great at their job – and a real asset to your team – but it doesn’t necessarily follow that they have the desire (or ability) to assume management roles. As leaders, we have to know the difference between high potential and high performance if we want to identify, develop, and retain talent. Check out my recent article on promoting high performers for a more detailed look at how to make the most of your high potentials.

Why Do Star Performers Stop Performing?

It is unusual for a star performer to stop performing completely. They can (and do) become disenchanted with their work⁵, but it’s not always easy to spot disengaged stars. Unhappiness at work won’t necessarily translate into poor performance, and star performers can still meet and exceed targets when they are not engaged or invested.

Environments that would affect productivity in other groups are less likely to result in performance problems with stars, who will simply seek a new employer. A 2014 study found that less than half of high performers are satisfied with their jobs, and 20% are likely to leave in the next six months².

So, if your high performer isn’t working at their best, then the chances are the issue is down to more than simply the working environment or management style. High performers’ productivity can be impacted by a number of situations, including:

  1. A problem in their personal life affecting their work.
  2. Misdirected effort.
  3. Lack of challenge.

Solutions

Address the problem

The only solution is to get to the root of the problem. Managers need to handle the situation carefully, especially if the issue is a personal one. A one-to-one conversation is the first place to start. The general rules of feedback apply here, and you need to avoid making the conversation personal, instead keep it specific and forward focused:

“I noticed that we are behind on X. Is there anything I can do to help, are there any roadblocks in your way?”

Provide direction

Aligning star performers with organisational goals is crucial. Misdirection is a common reason for poor performance, and ensuring your star performers are aware of the big picture means you can make the most of their ability to prioritise goals and think around a problem¹. If managers fail to provide a clear understanding of what they are working towards and why, star performers simply don’t have the information available to perform at their best.

Giving star performers the freedom to work autonomously and deliver on set objectives is a great way to reward their work and reinforce their value, capitalising on their talents and increasing their worth to your organisation in the process. Too much autonomy, however, can lead to misdirection and lower productivity, with individuals working against organisational objectives or at cross-purposes to each other. To maximise productivity, an autonomous approach should always be accompanied by regular check-ins and a clear understanding of organisational goals.

Be sympathetic

If your star performer is struggling with a personal issue, giving them time off to address it is often the quickest way to get them back up to speed. A sympathetic approach also demonstrates exactly how much you value their contribution to the team.

Provide new challenges

Star performers are great creative thinkers¹, so provide them with new challenges if their current work is becoming repetitive. Just ensure the new assignment is aligned with the organisation’s long-term plans and fulfils a real purpose.

Communicate

The ability to independently judge their value means that a lack of feedback or praise can make star performers feel unappreciated. These guys are well aware that they perform above the rest of the team, and they need to know that you appreciate and value that contribution. Show them how much they are valued and set up regular check-ins to make sure they have the support they need to perform well.

To Sum Up…

Star performers exist in every industry, and can make a significant contribution to organisational growth. Managing them requires a unique approach, and leaders need to focus on developing skills and retention rather than performance.

Any tips and tricks for managing star performers? Feel free to share them in the comments section.

References

¹Aguinis and O’Boyle, 2014. Star performers in 21st century organisations. Personnel Psychology, 67. pp. 313-350

²Willyerd, K. 2014. What high performers want at work. Harvard Business Review.

³Gordon, 2014. High performers vs. workaholics, 7 subtle differences. LinkedIn Pulse.

⁴Durek and Gordon, 2009. In: Hughes et al. ed., Handbook for developing emotional and social intelligence. Chapter 9: Zeroing in on star performance. pp. 185. Available from: IMD.

⁵Kibler, 2015. Prevent your star performers from losing passion for their work. Harvard Business Review.